Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

a-gentleman-in-moscowMy last few nights’ reading have been in the company of a very nice gentleman, in the city of Moscow, no less.  Amor Towles is an American author whose book turned up in my local library, and I knew as soon as I saw the title that someone had recommended it so I brought it home.  It turned out to be Tony from Tony’s Book World who’d described Towles as

a great literary stylist in the order of Vladimir Nabokov.  A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way. A stylist can go on and describe a game of Hide the Thimble for several pages, and we will not complain; in fact we will be charmed.

In 1922, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is arrested by the Bolsheviks.  His crime is that he is an aristocrat, but improbably, he evades summary execution or exile in Siberia because of his service in the prerevolutionary cause (as a poet) and is instead subjected to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol.  No longer in his elegant suite, but in a poky attic upstairs, he adapts to his new circumstances with aplomb, guided by the advice of Montaigne:

The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission to move them to commiseration and pity.  However, audacity and steadfastness – entirely contrary means –  have sometimes served to produce the same effect. (p.40)

While the Count’s accommodation is claustrophobic, his circumstances seem quite congenial.  He continues to dine well, to enjoy the hotel’s splendid cellar, and to have time for reading though his library is of necessity much reduced.  He has gold coins secreted away in his furniture; he can still get his laundry done and his trousers mended.  It’s true that the staff are no longer allowed to address him as ‘Your Excellency’; that the grand ballroom has been taken over by the Bolsheviks for policy and planning meetings; and the Metropol’s guests are not quite what they were, but the Count gets by, seemingly unbothered by the loss of his freedom – because the world comes to him, including his best friend Mishka, also a poet but of more reckless temperament. He also enjoys the company of the hotel staff Andrey and Emile, he has a lovely actress as a lover, and the friendship of a charming child called Nina whose parents are long term guests.

However Towles does not let the charming urbanity with which the Count negotiates his new circumstances conceal events outside the hotel.  These focus on the Stalinist years, and there is very little about the Great Patriotic War (WW2).  However, contrary to expectations, the picture is not entirely negative, with acknowledgement that Tsarist Russia was a backward country badly in need of reform, which was transformed into an industrial powerhouse and rival to the United States.  When the Count, under The Thaw, is coaching a Soviet functionary called Osip in the genteel ways of the West, he relays Mishka’s views on the burning of Moscow and the toppling of statues, and the silencing of poets.  Osip counters with a surprising point of view:

‘The Bolsheviks are not Visigoths, Alexander.  We are not the barbarian hordes descending upon Rome and destroying all that is fine out of ignorance and envy.  It is the opposite.  In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state.  It was the most illiterate state in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden ploughs, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons.  That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before.  Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?’

Osip paused, taking a moment to refill their glasses with wine.

‘But where do we stand now?  How far have we come?  By marrying American tempo with Soviet aims, we are on the verge of universal literacy, Russia’s long-suffering women, our second serfdom, have been elevated to the status of equals.  We have built whole new cities and our industrial production outpaces that of most of Europe.

‘But at what cost?’

Osip slapped the table.

‘At the greatest cost! But do you think the achievements of the Americans – envied the world over – came without a cost?  Just ask their African brothers.  (p. 297)

Osip goes on to say that the reason America and the USSR will lead the rest of the century is because they are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it.  The difference is that they have done so in the service of their beloved individualism while the USSR has done so in the service of the common good.

This perspective – that there might have been something valuable achieved under communism – is not what readers might expect of an American author in the age of triumphant capitalism.

Needless to say, however, A Gentleman in Moscow does depict some of the ‘costs’ so blithely dismissed by Osip.  The years pass and Nina marries, departing with her husband and other Komosol youth to the Kady district, to aid the udarniks or ‘shock workers’ in the collectivisation of the region.  As we know, things didn’t go so well under Stalin’s plans for agriculture and scapegoats had to be found, so before long Nina is back to ask the Count to care for her little girl while she follows her husband to Siberia.

As the years roll on and there is no sign of Nina, the Count progresses from being Uncle Sasha to Papa.  At the same time officiousness begins to affect operations at the hotel and the Count’s lifestyle too.  He is required to work, so he becomes a waiter, a job which suits his gourmet tastes since there is a daily meeting of The Triumvirate to taste test the day’s specials and to choose a splendid matching wine.  Alas, the day arrives when someone has decided that  it’s contrary to soviet principles to have wine that only the rich can afford, so all the wines have their labels removed and are sold for the same price.  (Can you imagine it?  You might get a Grange, or you might get a bottle of Jacob’s Creek!) An officious manager nicknamed The Bishop institutes a process of inventory and ordering so onerous that meals arrive at the table stone cold. Worse, he insists on attending the Triumvirate’s meetings, imposing economies and suggesting incompatible side dishes to use up what’s in the pantry.  And The Count’s friend Mishka chafes under the policies imposed on literature and the arts …

But these sombre events are only episodes in the broader canvas of the Count’s life.  A Gentleman in Moscow is a testament to the human spirit – uplifting, droll, exciting, and utterly seductive.  I’m going to see if I can find this author’s first novel Rules of Civility as well.

Author: Amor Towles
Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2016
ISBN: 9781786330383
Source: Kingston Library

Available from FishpondA Gentleman in Moscow


Responses

  1. Thank You so much for the mention. ‘Rules of Civility’ is another very fine novel, and it surely will not disappoint you. Here is my link:
    https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2011/08/06/%e2%80%9crules-of-civility%e2%80%9d-by-amor-towles/
    .

    • Thank *you* for alerting me to the book! I hope the library has Rules of Civility…

    • Love your definition Tony of literary stylist – it perfectly delineates the two types of readers, those who read primarily for story and those who love to wallow in writing.

  2. I did so enjoy this book! And your review is fabulous – thanks!

    I don’t know as I’d go so far as to compare Towles to Nabokov as that one reviewer did, but … whatever. Towles is really quite good.

    The history in Gentleman in Moscow was wonderfully presented and never intrusive while still giving the distinct feeling it was quite real – Stalin really was there – and the others over the years. And the comments about the US – spot on as you Aussie’s would say. And Osip’s comments were the sentiments in the time of glasnost – after the Berlin Wall came down – before the fall of the Soviet Union – 1989 – 1991 or so. They’d be different today, I think, in this era of, as you so aptly put it, “triumphal capitalism.”

    Anyway – kudos on capturing the flavor and essence of the book. It was one of my eight “best of fiction” novels for 2016. Thanks also for bringing the memory of it back.

    Fwiw, I’ve had Towles’ prior book, “Rules of Civility” on my wish list ever since I read A Gentleman in Moscow. lol –

  3. A great review Lisa; I almost feel as if I don’t need to read it….only, I will.

    I’ve read a couple of reviews of this book and it sounds brilliant.

    • As you will see when you do read it, I was spoiled for choice when it came to choosing excerpts to tempt you!

  4. The publisher sent me a review copy of this, and because I knew that Tony had warmly recommended it I have it on my bedside table ready to read in the next month or two. Now that you have warmly recommended it, I know that I must get to it sooner rather than later.

    • You lucky thing, I wish the publisher had thought of me, I’d love to have a copy to keep and eventually re-read!

  5. I’ve been umming and ahhing and wondering whether I would love this or hate it. You’ve rather convinced me I should read it very, very soon!

    • It is, I think, a rare example of something that will appeal to popular taste as well as people who want more from their reading. Just when I was thinking, this is nice and I’m enjoying myself, but that’s all, there was an aside, a comment, a footnote or a digression which made me realise that there was more to the book that is apparent at first glance.

  6. […] with a neat segue back to Tony’s Book World because Tony recommended it, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  Tony described Towles as a great literary stylist in the order of Vladimir Nabokov. A literary […]


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